This dumb thing we do with the colleges and the sports provides us with two different worldviews.
In college football, the regular season is fraught with meaning. Missouri will most likely miss the national championship based on a missed chip-shot field goal in double OT; for Alabama, it was a 109-yard missed field goal return with the clock expired.
In college basketball, as we've heard a billion, trillion, Nathan Fillion times, the regular season is pointless. And the early going has done a great job of underlining that fact: With Michigan State's loss to UNC, all the top-five teams from the preseason AP poll have lost games -- and all assuredly will be highly seeded come March.
What the haters say is true. College basketball's regular season is somewhat meaningless, while its finale is an orgiastic life-and-death brouhaha. It casts the sport's best teams asunder in no time while making heroes of unknowns. The vast majority of the 351 teams in the country will still be alive come March 1. In one game, FGCU earned a legacy despite failing to win the puny Atlantic Sun's regular season title, while Georgetown seized the last big bad Big East title and got nothing out of 2013 besides a continued rep for failure.
Even though college basketball's mad scramble of a finish is one of the most enjoyable events to watch in sports, it's indisputably an awful way to crown a champion. March Madness puts the guy who's watched hundreds of games on a level playing field with the dude scrambling for opinions on Selection Sunday's Monday. Neither knows what's going to happen.
So, why watch early games between great teams if they have no say on ultimate success? Why are we glued to the TV for the other five months of college hoops? (Besides, you know, liking basketball and wanting to watch it, and the fact that the bubble needs to sort itself out.)
A few weeks ago, I tried to explain to an NBA friend why I like watching teams play zone defense. Every defensive strategy in every sport asks offenses to adjust, but I don't think any seizes the decision-making momentum from the team that's supposed to attack more than a zone.
Zones don't necessarily take away a team's ability to operate, but they force teams to operate differently: there are literally people standing where you want to move. Stars can no longer just go at the opposition; the team has to work as a fivesome to get the star the ball in a favorable position.
For the entirety of my time at Northwestern, Bill Carmody ran a 1-3-1 zone with forays into a matchup zone. One time, Michigan ran its 1-3-1 set against Northwestern, and about four seconds and a head-spinning whirl of passes later, Northwestern had drilled a three. The team had practiced against it a fillion times, and it was too easy. Michigan would put the gadget away for the rest of the game.
Zones make teams play chess. When a team busts out a zone, both coaches know that there are inherent gaps in the zone's design. Even the seemingly impregnable Syracuse zone with Michael Carter-Williams and Brandon Triche at the top from last year's squad had holes, weaknesses in the same places as you'd find weaknesses in the 2-3 zone a high school team runs, albeit smaller, quicker and less prone to huge fundamental errors. By setting up in a zone, a defensive team is daring the opposition to get in the right position to exploit those weaknesses, something that requires equal parts personnel, execution and presence of mind -- and asking them to do it time after time over the course of a 40-minute basketball game.
So, too, all college basketball teams have obvious flaws. There are no perfect players, since at 18-22 years old, nobody's game is polished. The talent is spread across 100-ish relevant teams and 250 others, and nobody really has the complete personnel it wants. And 350 coaches means there are 350 playing styles, with no shortage of random, weird strategies that cater to one thing and ignore something else huge.
The college basketball season is an elaborate flaw-finding process, where each team scrounges around and discovers how it loses ballgames.
We've already seen a few. To massively overgeneralize their losses: Kentucky doesn't have much in the way of outside shooting, and turns the ball over a lot while not forcing a lot of turnovers. This is how the Wildcats lost to Michigan State. Louisville can get 56 combined points from Russ Smith and Chris Jones and still lose, as the Cardinals did against North Carolina. Kansas doesn't have a backup for Joel Embiid, and Joel Embiid commits his fair share of fouls.
By March, each team's weak points will be well-known, both to the teams with the problems and the teams trying to exploit said problems. Each tourney game provides the option to limit their problems and survive or run headlong into them.
The NCAA basketball tournament might crown the best team, but there's a good chance it won't. And despite NARRATIVES, it won't crown "the hottest" or "the most clutch" since those are not really things. It will crown the team that does the best job of managing its shortcomings and hammering those of its opponents.
This is when we find out those shortcomings. It's not as instantly gratifying as the noon-to-midnight fireworks of March, but your opera's gonna suck balls without the overture, ain't it?
Rodger bothers a coach
Y'all ain't heard about the epic Michigan-Charlotte rivalry? Let 49ers head coach Alan Major tell you.
"The two schools have a little history now," Major said. "Charlotte had played Michigan once before, a game to go to the Final Four in 1977. Both times Michigan and Charlotte have played have been pivotal games in a tournament setting."
The first win resulted in Charlotte's only trip to the Final Four. The second was the finals of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off a few weeks back in San Juan, and it ended like this:
That's Terrence Williams, just like Major drew it up: a missed layup off the dish from Pierriá Henry, rebounded by himself and tapped back for the win.
"It was a crazy back-and-forth game," Major said. "Thankfully there wasn't enough time for them to get the shot off with the full-court pass."
You would be forgiven for not having picked Charlotte in your Puerto Rico Tip-Off office pool, which surely your office had. Top-15 squads in Michigan and VCU sat on one side of the bracket, and the 49ers were matched up against Kansas State with a likely second-round game against Georgetown.
But they grabbed 17 of their 34 misses to knock off K-State, with Willie Clayton, one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, posting his third straight double-double. (He has six through eight games.) Against Northeastern, who knocked off Georgetown, they 49ers drilled 10 threes, six on seven shots by Tulane transfer Ben Cherry. And ... well ... they kinda dominated a poor-shooting Michigan team. They led by as much as 12 before a Wolverines rally forced that last-second miss-board-layup-for-the-win by Terrence Williams.
Photo via Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
Early season tournaments like the Puerto Rico Tip-Off are packed events, with the 49ers having to play three games in four days.
"Guys have to get off their feet, get iced up if they're banged up, get rest in their hotel rooms," Major said. "The guys did a good job of treating it like a business trip."
The team had a day off on Saturday in between Northeastern and Michigan, giving the players six hours off. Major said some went to Old San Juan and some went to the beach. Coaches? Not so much.
"You're watching film," Major said. "You gotta get yourself ready for whatever you gotta do next and stay a step ahead. You have to kind of pick and choose if you're going to have a good time or focus on the task at hand. It's hard to do both."
But Major's squad had experience, thanks to a similar, albeit colder, trip last year.
"We were fortunate enough to have some guys who had been in Alaska last year," Major said about last year's win in the somewhat less prestigious Great Alaska Shootout. "Not that it entitles you to win another one, but the idea of how hard it is to win three games in four days."
Charlotte's run in Puerto Rico could come in handy down the line -- the only other time teams will have to turn around games on such tight schedules is in March in conference tournaments.
"That's one of the reasons we like to play in those types of events," Major said. "It gets our guys some very good competition early on, and then you hope that it'll prepare you for the end of the year a bit too."
It'll be a new experience for the 49ers, who switched from the Atlantic 10 back to the Conference USA this past year, rejoining a league they had played in until 2005. It's not as flashy a bunch -- A-10 will have its tournament in Brooklyn's Barclays Center -- but it could be a positive move for the Niners.
"For fans, it's great to know that they can get to a conference game from time to time," Major said. "The A-10 was a tremendous conference to be in, but it made it harder on our fans. Our closest road game was Richmond, which was a five-and-a-half hour drive."
Major also said the TV package is easier to access in North Carolina. Major, an Indianapolis native with previous stints at Xavier and Ohio State under Thad Matta, has mined the local area for talent, with 12 of the 16 players on his roster coming from in-state.
"Guys like to be away from home," Major said. "But they're still within striking distance."
Although Major wouldn't talk to his team's chances in a new league, the C-USA seems a better slate for Charlotte. In eight years in the A-10, the 49ers never made the tournament once. They had made the tourney seven times in their previous 10-year stint in Conference USA, including the last two seasons before their 2005 switch. Last year, they were running with Butler, VCU and Saint Louis. A .500 record in a conference with nine top-100 KenPom teams was good enough for an NIT bid, the team's first since 2008. The C-USA only has four top-100 teams, with none above No. 72.
Charlotte's early going has been mixed -- the win against Michigan is one for the marquee, while a one-point loss to Charleston and OT loss to Davidson show the team could easily be undefeated, but still look like losses on the schedule.
But after going 10-20 four years ago in Major's first season as a head coach, 6-2 ain't bad. And besides, they'll settle for the hardware they've already got.
Photo via Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports
P.S. So far as we can tell, there's no *good* reason for them being called the 49ers -- the school was saved from being shut down in 1949, and it was felt the student body embodied the spirit of the gold mining dudes. Sweet pickaxe logo, though. (Also, for basketball, just Charlotte, not UNC-Charlotte.)
P.P.S. We are big fans of Henry -- "Pierriá" is pronounced "Perry-ay," we believe -- a high school wide receiver star who averages 5.9 assists but is probably most notable for his work stealing the ball from opponents -- but alas, he is hurt. The loss against Davidson was the team's first game without Henry. No word on his status.
Game of the Day of the Week
Onions! tells you the most important items on each college basketball day -- not necessarily the best game, but the Onions-iest.
Friday, Dec. 6: James Madison vs. Sam Houston, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN3
The actual best game is Baylor-Kentucky, which should be spectacular in JerryWorld at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN. But I wanted to point out that Sam Houston would beat the HELL outta James Madison in a fight.
Saturday, Dec. 7: BYU vs. UMass, 1:30 p.m. ET, CBS Sports Network
When we highlighted these teams in our first column, we had no idea they were actually playing each other a few weeks later. As close to a must-watch from my perspective as possible.
Sunday, Dec. 8: Nebraska vs. Creighton, 6 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1
Intra-state matchup between Dougie McBuckets and a Nebrasketball team teetering on the edge of relevance.
Monday, Dec. 9: Bryant vs. Notre Dame, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
There aren't that many games Monday. At 6-2, Bryant actually has the better record!
Tuesday, Dec. 10: Kansas vs. Florida, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Florida has dropped both its games against ranked teams, but those both came on the road. This will be the best defense Andrew Wiggins and Co. have faced, so we'll see how they handle it.
Wednesday, Dec. 11: New Mexico State vs. Arizona, 9 p.m. ET, Pac-12 Networks
Aaron Gordon is great ... BUT CAN HE SCORE ON 7'5 SIM BHULLAR?!?!?!?! I just love watching Sim Bhullar. I would watch him run up and down a court even if there wasn't a basketball game going on.
Thursday, Dec. 12: Maryland vs. Boston College, 7 p.m. ET, ESPNU
Boston College is terrible, but, it's an ACC basketball game! Huzzah!
Random awards season
Top conference teams play guarantee games against lower conference teams, matchups where one side pays money and the other plays guest in the other's house. Most of the time this goes well for the top conference team, but some of the time you just paid to lose to, I don't know, let's say Coppin State. (Yeah, we noticed, Oregon State.) It serves as a winnable game for the big team and, well, a game and cash for the other.
But what happens when the Coppin States of the world want to get a win? They turn to DII and NAIA teams. For Coppin State, for example, it beat something called Ohio Valley University, which does not play in the DI conference of the same name. Why these matchups count in the standings and aren't considered exhibitions, I genuinely don't know, but the November and December schedules are peppered with matchups between Division I schools and organizations of random letters I've never seen before.
Some of them are incredible: for example, Metro State, last year's DII runners-up, took on four Division I teams and handed out three losses, beating Farleigh Dickinson, Elon and Canisius, while losing by only three to Rhode Island. Some of them are modestly famous, like Chaminade, the Honolulu-based school whose Silverswords play in the Maui Invitational every year and gave Baylor a run for its money thanks to FGCU transfer Christophe Varidel. Some are, predictably, awful. KenPom No. 346 Maine has just one win in seven tries, that one win being a 111-64 thrashing of "Fisher."
We did some schedule diving, and found some pearls: schools who we don't understand, but would love to.
Most confusing religious imagery: Our Lady of the Lake, Jan. 4 vs. Incarnate Word. We are Jews, so forgive us for ignorance. But, wait, is there a religion out there worshipping a lake lady? We thought that was an Arthurian thing, and don't think people should wield supreme executive power because some watery tart throws swords on them. Their team name is the Saints, which we can confirm is a religious term.
Most delicious: Bacone, Dec. 17 vs. Abilene Christian. Yes, we did wonder if somebody had shaped bacon into a cone, and yes, somebody has, and it looks spectacular.
Most misleading: Champion Baptist. The Champ has four DI games this year. It has already lost to KenPom No. 284 Southeastern Louisiana, 108-54, a perfect doubling up, and was beaten even worse by KenPom No. 343 Mississippi Valley State, losing 108-48. They still have games against New Orleans and Southern on the docket, and we doubt the Tigers will prove their champion nature.
Vaguest: Mid-Continent. Somewhere in this region:
The Cougars lost 107-60 to Morehead State and 109-64 to Southeast Missouri, somewhat helping us narrow the search down to the Kentucky-Missouri area.
Best rivalry game: Coast Guard, Dec. 30 vs. Army. The oft-forgotten Coast Guard Academy is a DIII school whose teams go by the Bears. We'd count out a DIII school, but Army's 1-6 so far this year.
Least diverse academic palette: Presentation, Dec. 15 vs. North Dakota. No paper-writing here.
"Manolos, Manonos, I can't tell!" Award: Notre Dame, Dec. 18 vs. Cleveland State. DON'T INVESTIGATE, VIKINGS FANS. NOTRE DAME IS COMING TO VISIT AND YOU BETTER GET YOUR TICKETS. (Although Ohioans might already know this is a Euclid-based DII school.)
Best imaginary rapper to found a college: Young Harris, lost 71-54 to Georgia State. YOUNG HARRIS IN THE BUILDING.
Longest road trip: Peru State, Dec. 29 vs. Nebraska-Omaha. Travel expenses from Lima to Omaha are gonna be through the roof, so this better be a big payout. (This is actually a school in Nebraska, missing a huge opportunity by being named the Bobcats and not the Incas.)
Most unnecessarily aggressive: Defiance, Dec. 27 vs. Oakland. I hope every time the ref calls a foul, these guys are like "WE WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS OPPRESSION" and signify that they're playing the rest of the game under protest.
Hardest: Limestone, lost 78-69 to Western Carolina. Yo, I think I'm mainly mad that all these schools have awesome names and none have awesome mascots. Peru State was the Bobcats. Defiance was the Yellow Jackets. Limestone is the Saints. Not the Quarrymen, or the Rockcutters, or the Boulders, or something innovative. The Saints, like 42 other schools on this list. ARE Y'ALL JUST GETTING TAKING EXTRA JERSEYS/STATIONARY FROM SCHOOLS THAT PRINTED UP TOO MUCH? BECAUSE YOU CAN NAME YOUR TEAM WHATEVER YOU WANT, AND THIS GENERIC AIN'T CUTTIN IT FOR ME.
And the grand prize:
Best name, all categories: Barber-Scotia, lost 101-46 to North Carolina Central. Taking the prize for "best half-profession, half-province" from Handymanitoba.